Icelandic Christmas calendar Posted by hulda on Dec 11, 2014 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history
Welcome to count the days with the Icelandic blog, dear readers – I’m going to follow the Icelandic tradition of Christmas calendar in which the count-down does not begin on the 1st Dec but the night before the 12th. There will be a new part added to this post every day, so stay tuned!
Kertasníkir (= Candle-Stealer) is the last one to arrive. He steals candles and eats them, and is possibly aided by a lesser-known brother Lampaskuggi (= Lamp-Shadow) who loves to suddenly put out all the lights!
What else is going on here? The volcano – still erupting. Weather – surprisingly good. The Christmas presents that went missing – owners have been found (link). Those that love Christmas lights are having a great time (link). On the 23rd was the day of saint Þorlákur (link), the patron saint of Iceland and the only canonized one we have, and the whole city smelled of fish and occasionally ammonia as well. There was also a candle parade downtown (link).
The Icelandic Christmas Calendar has come to an end, I hope you’ve enjoyed it! Remember that giving clothes as presents could save lives (link)! 😀
The first Jólasveinn (= Yule lad) is already wearing his traveling coat and it’s high time to get prepared for what’s to come. Children are putting their shoes on the window sill in hopes that there’ll be candy in them if they’ve been nice. If they’ve been bad they’ll get a potato, a threat only overcome by a friend of mine who absolutely loved potatoes as a child. 😀
Nowadays the Jólasveinar are harmless, but at their origin they were actually quite scary. Their mother Grýla is an ogress who likes to steal children for her dinner, naughty or nice has no effect on her appetite and she has eaten at least one of her previous husbands as well. Some old stories portray the Jólasveinar as being her accomplishes, helping her find out where the children live while also damaging the farms and their livestock. In the year 1746 people were banned from scaring their children with Grýla and her family. There’s been some attempts at her life but even after being declared dead a few times she’s somehow still around…
Good morning, hopefully you slept well! Last night Stekkjarstaur (= Sheep-Cote Clod) was moving around and you can expect him to keep going for the following 13 days. He’s said to harass sheep, wishing to drink their milk, but that his two peg-legs make moving difficult for him and therefore he has trouble catching the animals.
Not scary? Well, consider this: in old Icelandic houses the sheep pens could be connected to the main house*… so you wake up at night to a weird, rhythmic knocking sound and your pets are going absolutely mad, as if they’re afraid of whatever’s making the sound. Get’s you into the holiday mood right away! 😀
Stekkjarstaur is one of the oldest known Yule Lads. At his origin he was simply mentioned as being “einn af Grýlu hyski og grimmur við unga sveina” (= one of Grýla’s family and cruel to small children) though, not just a sheep-bullying troll son.
* you’ll see a corridor leading to the sheep pens in this entry and also how dark it used to be in the turf houses, which no doubt gave some edge to all scary Christmas stories!
On the night of the 13th arrives the second Jólasveinn Giljagaur. His name is usually translated as Gully Gawk, and along with Stekkjarstaur he’s one of the two oldest known Jólasveinar. Originally he wasn’t Grýla’s child at all but her brother, so we can probably assume his bad behaviour has since toned down a bit. Grýla herself may also be somewhat older than she seems: this article compares her to the Scottish Cailleach Beur and the Irish Cailleach Bhéara.
As for Giljagaur, just like his name suggests he likes to hide in gullies in hopes to steal milk, if a way to the cows is clear for even a moment. Nowadays as cows are harder to come by he might be raiding the fridge instead!
The third to arrive is called Stúfur, Stubby. As his name suggests he’s really short, and his preferred thing to steal are pots and pans with food burned to the bottom that have not been washed in time.
There are actually more than just 13 Jólasveinar. Most of them are so local that even Icelanders haven’t heard of them all, and in some areas like the east coast they don’t come from the mountains but from the sea. There are even some female ones such as Flotnös (= Fat Nose) and Flotsokka (= Fat Sock); the first steals fat to stuff her nose with it (I have no idea why) the second takes socks that have not been finished by Christmas and rubs grease on them.
Some jokes don’t translate all that well. 😀 The Icelandic one goes “What’s Stúfur’s favourite neighbourhood? Smáíbúðahverfið (a real neighbourhood in Reykjavík, but the name can also be read as ‘small apartment area’)”
Þvörusleikir (= Spoon licker) is here! The English translation to his name is a little bit misleading – he doesn’t steal just any spoons, he wants those old fashioned, large, wooden ones used to stir a pot, but he does lick them. This seems to be his only source of food so he’s usually shown as being very thin and malnourished.
As a funny piece of news, one of the Jólasveinar got fined yesterday (link)! It naturally made some headlines, although no one seems to know which one of them it was. Maybe it’s a whole new Yule Lad who specializes in parking illegally?
Þottaskefill (= Pot-scraper) follows his older brother, but instead of spoons he wants any pots or pans that have food burned to the bottom and have not been washed. He’s occasionally known by the name Pottasleikir (= Pot-licker) as well.
Among the lesser-known Jólasveinar there are some that are far worse than these food thieves though – imagine Lungnaslettir, if you like. His name means Lung Splatter and his description sounds like something straight out of a horror movie: his chest is open and the lungs are outside. His little Christmas joke? Trying to catch children and beat them with his lungs!
Yesterday’s Yule Lad brought us quite a storm (link)! Let’s hope Askasleikir (= Bowl-Licker) arrives with better weather.
I’ve always found Askasleikir among the creepiest Jólasveinar. He hides under beds and waits for someone to put down their askur, a lidded bowl for food (link)*, and steals it in a flash. This is probably a cautionary part because putting the bowl on the floor instead of a shelf was bad manners, yet there’s something very upsettling at the thought of something under my bed keeping an eye on me, ready to jump any moment…
*For the reader who was interested in these bowls: I tried to see if it were possible to buy askar, but alas they’re so old fashioned that the only way of getting one is by commission. Small, souvenir type of toys do exist (link).
Now we’re getting to the other scary ones: Hurðaskellir (= Door-Slammer) is guaranteed to give you a jump or two in the following days by suddenly slamming any doors that are left open. Some say he’ll not only do this to open doors but to closed ones as well, and that his favourite time for mischief is at night after everyone’s gone to bed.
Another, lesser known Jólasveinn is Reykjarsvelgur (= Smoke-Swallower). He sits on top of houses and gulps down the smoke coming out, especially if meat is being smoked. Then he goes to catch a passer-by and burps the smoke in their face. 😀
Skyr is delicious, and alas the next Jólasveinn is very aware of this: Skyrgámur (= Skyr-Gobbler) loves to eat skyr and tries to steal all he can.
Among the lesser-known Jólasveinar there are some really curious names that I’ve not managed to get a proper explanation for, such as Litlipungur (= Small Testicles), Flórsleikir (= Dung channel licker) and Baggalútur (= Small boy). The last one is also a name of a band by the way, you can find their Christmas songs here.
Bjúgnakrækir (= Sausage-Swiper) arrived last night. Now’s the time to keep an eye on the ceiling and any possible sausages around, especially the smoked kind because those are his favourite. Bjúgnakrækir likes to hide in the rafters, so now you can expect food thieves literally from floor to ceiling. Askasleikir will be under the bed, Stúfur, Þvörusleikir, Pottaskefill and Skyrgámur are sneaking around the kitchen, and now the danger’s also above.
Last week the newspapers have occasionally posted a very specific type of news: lost Christmas presents. Here the University of Iceland is trying to find an owner to a parcel simply titled “til mömmu” (= to mum).
Gluggagægir (= Window-Peeper) is again one of the scary type of Jólasveinar. In old pictures he’s often seen peeping through a window while children inside the room cower in fear, trying to hide from him. The lore says he’s looking for things to steal but never explains exactly what it is that he’d take if he gets a chance. I guess it’s good to keep in mind that at his origin he, too, was a troll-son of a child-eating mother.
Gáttaþefur (= Doorway-Sniffer) is easy to tell apart from the other Jólasveinar: he likes to sniff at doors for possible laufabrauð that he could steal and his nose is huge! His sense of smell is said to be very good in general, even if he’s sniffing for something else than his favourite treat.
Some of the old, lesser-known Jólasveinar actually had to make way for newer ones. For example Hurðaskellir took the place of Faldafeykir (= Skirt-Sweeper), a troll who harassed women by sweeping their hats off and skirts up and behaved in a most offensive way around them. Good riddance…
We’re almost at the last one now. After today only one more Jólasveinn is missing, and today’s second-last one is called Ketkrókur (= Meat-Hook). He climbs onto roofs and tries to steal meat that’s hung from the rafters with a long hook.
Grýla is also tied to the formation of ice. The joke is hard to translate, but originally it says “what excites Grýla the most”. That’s a pun, since the verb kveikja can also mean “to light”, and the answer’s also a pun – “Grýla’s candle”, a synonym for an icicle.
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